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Four Editors in Search of a Thread: A Documentary Roundtable

By Andrea Van Hook

Editor's Note: This is an abridged version of an article that originally appeared in the March-April 2003 issue of Editors Guild Magazine. For the complete version, click here.

The task of the documentary editor is not simply to tell a story, but more often to find that story, embedded in a enormous mass of material that initially seems to have no structure at all. Larry Silk, Tom Haneke, Jonathan Oppenheim and Bob Eisenhardt are among the most highly respected editors of long-form documentaries in America. Working out of New York, they've spent their lives informing audiences as much as entertaining them, and their award-winning work includes some of the most important cinéma verité documentary features of a generation.

Silk is a lifetime member of the Editors Guild, with over four decades of experience as an editor. His diverse credits include the breakout hit Pumping Iron (George Butler, Robert Fiore, dirs.), which introduced a young Arnold Schwarzenegger to the world; the landmark labor film and Oscar winner American Dream (Barbara Kopple, dir.; co-edited with Tom Haneke and Cathy Caplan); and last year's ABC documentary mini-series The Hamptons (Barbara Kopple, dir.).

Eisenhardt's latest film, The Blues: Godfathers and Sons (Marc Levin, dir.), aired on PBS in September; his work also includes American Standoff (Kristi Jacobson, dir.) a revealing documentary about an agonizing Teamsters strike, and the multi-year project Concert of Wills: Making the Getty Center (Albert Maysles, Susan Froemke, dirs.). The first film Haneke edited, From Mao to Mozart (Murray Lerner, dir.), won an Academy Award, and since then he hasn't looked back, co-directing and editing Barbara Kopple's My Generation, a film about the ill-conceived second Woodstock music festival; and the recent duPont-Columbia award winning Ghosts of Attica (Jonathan Stack, dir.). Oppenheim is known for tackling complex and difficult work such as Jennie Livingston's Paris Is Burning, a look at members of a gay and largely transvestite Latino and African-American subculture; Oscar nominee Children Underground (Edet Belzberg, dir.) about Romanian street children; and Joseph Dorman's Arguing the World, about the lives and political battles of four New York intellectuals over the course of 50 years. In this interview, the editors talk about their craft, how they approach their work and the impact of technology.

Four white men, middle-to-older aged, sit around a coffee table in a living in conversation

Editors Guild Magazine: It seems that what you do is very different from what a narrative editor does.

Tom Haneke: We're not following a script. That's the key difference. You're often writing the show as you cut it, finding what's interesting.

Jonathan Oppenheim: Take the film I'm working on now. It's about a battle over a water project in Southwest Colorado that was shot over six years and has 300 hours of material. There are these endless meetings of water boards. But there are some very interesting people and they all hate each other with a passion. So it really is a film about hatred. That's what we do—we find out what the thing is really about and try to make that the center of gravity, the organizing principle of the story.

TH: There are also a lot of different technical issues—how you cut documentary and how you handle the material. You don't get any retakes, everything is new, and you have to watch everything. Otherwise you might as well never have shot it. How long did it take you to screen 300 hours?

JO: I screened about 200. The director thought the rest was useless. When you're on a very tight schedule and have that much material and somebody says, "Don't bother looking at this," you listen to them.

TH: It's difficult when there is so much material, because you're only going to be able to see everything once. You have to take very good notes. Then you have to cross-reference them, because as you're watching, you're going to discover new issues. The film starts to emerge, and things that were "just footage" become significant.

JO: You can screen about five hours a day, six if you really push it, before losing all perspective. That's 25, 30 hours a week. So 300 hours is...

TH: Two and a half months.

Bob Eisenhardt: I did a film recently that had 600 hours. It took me six months just to look at everything! This was American Standoff, a film about the Teamsters on strike. The making of selects is a very important process—something you don't have to do in the same way on narrative films.  In documentary, you get selects that come down to 50 percent—25 percent in this case—of all the material. Then it's a lot easier to see the really interesting characters and moments and what the different story lines can be. But that's a process that takes time, and these days it gets short-circuited.

Larry Silk: I used to screen every roll of dailies twice. I would take a whole situation and screen it first and make notes about it before I decided what to select. Now, I often don't have time to do that.

JO: That's a drawback with digital video cameras—so much is shot and you don't get the payoff until later, when all that material gives you a lot of possibilities. When you're screening it, you often want to tear your hair out.

TH: Normally, at the end of the screening, I organize my notes and I force myself to categorize the contents of the scene. I begin to discover what the film is actually about. You have to find the bigger issue and communicate it to the viewer. They just got here—they don't know anything. So you have to know where that stuff is in the dailies and deliver it in a palatable and effective shorthand. You have to pay very close attention. You have to have a very long attention span to do this work.

LS: I worked on The Hamptons and we ended up with almost 1,000 hours of material. There were three of us. Each tackled 330 hours. It took four months just to log it into the computers. We didn't know what the other person was looking at. We didn't see everything. We had to figure out a way to break it up by characters. We had to figure out a way to make it about something that would hold the audience. I finally came up with the idea that it's about life before 9/11, a sybaritic experience in this most decadent place of all. It's really a process of discovery most of the time. That's what keeps us fresh.

TH: Haven't you sometimes refused projects just because you didn't think you could maintain interest in a particular subject matter for the necessary amount of time?

LS:Producers are smart enough to know they're better off not hiring aficionados of the subject. They'd rather have somebody who's totally innocent, who maybe doesn't even like it. I was very hostile toward Abstract Expressionism, but then I did a film on de Kooning and got really excited about that whole movement. That happened to me with Pumping Iron, too. They gave me the book, and at first I was embarrassed to be seen reading it. But I became very curious about body building and why these people do it.

BE: Another thing about knowing too much is that you're coming from where the audience is not. After awhile, it's hard to see whether information is coming from the screen or whether you're filling it in because you know the subject.

JO: If you're doing something for a year one of the most challenging things is that you lose your distance. You have to find ways to refresh yourself. It's a big help to bring people in and see it through their eyes.

LS: I remember Peter Davis, a producer/ director at CBS, looking at a five-hour version of American Dream [about a strike at a Hormel meatpacking plant]. He said, "I don't understand anything." We like to work without narration, but finally we persuaded Barbara to write a few lines and use her own voice—which enabled us to simplify a very complex story.

TH: You can bend over backwards trying to follow the no-narration rule, but sometimes you're just beating the viewer up.


So that's a rule, no narration?

LS: We are definitely priests of reality and realism, and we often try to stay away from narration because it gets in the way. But it's got to work. When you try and edit something like that film without narration, you end up cutting it like a pretzel. The audience just cannot deal with it. You're much better off with some explanation, even a title, if you can figure out something simple and cogent.

JO: I worked on Arguing the World, a film about these four intellectuals. It was a hellish project. We worked without narration for a year. After all that hard labor it was like, "Oh my God, we've got to have narration and we've got to do it fast." Working without it, though, forced us to establish the story through the interviews. If we'd started with a script, we never would have done that. So it was like fertilizer to work without narration. I find the more complicated and long-term the process is, the more you go down some strange alleys - but they aren't always dead ends.

BE: We're talking about cinema vérité documentary. I've certainly done other kinds. Some start with a scripted outline, from the producer, writer or director—and they get organized differently. Sometimes they're fairly accurate; sometimes they're way off and have to get thrown out. I did a film about Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick [Hitchcock, Selznick and the End of Hollywood—Michael Epstein, dir./.prod.], which was part of the American Masters series. Most of those are narration-driven or interview-driven. We put the interviews together first to tell the story, then fill in what's missing with narration to get you from point to point. There's a back and forth that begins to build into a narrative that feels, in the end, like it made perfect sense from the get-go.

Vérité film comes from a different point of view. Often, you're covering a current event. You don't know how the event is going to end. One reason American Standoff shot 600 hours is because what was supposed to end in three weeks was still going on three years later. So they just kept filming. I was cutting without even knowing what the end was going to be, which is a situation you sometimes find yourself in with vérité film. Something like Hitchcock, Selznick —those are about dead people. So the story is told differently. Interviews and film clips and narration are necessary.

LS: Feature documentaries can be a great opportunity because they are much more editing-intensive. If you have vérité footage that's well done, there is space. It's not being carried entirely by what people say, but by the moods that you can find in it. I like to keep sucking the audience into a mood, a kind of a dream-like mood, as movies will do.

TH: You have to have rhythm and pacing, density and sparsity. Often, after a particularly significant content moment, you need one of those big spaces so it will ring for the viewer.

LS: Sometimes you find yourself working for a producer who is totally academic in his sensibility. He's very excited about the show, but he can only think about issues and subject. In narrative features you never do that. You may set it up emotionally and dramatically but usually each scene throws you right into another situation. Keep the audience's heart beating and their brain going. That's what I love.

BE: Vérité editing is writing and editing at the same time. You're scripting it as you're going along, doing a dramatic screenwriter's work as well as the editor's work.


Can you describe your process?

LS: The most fun I ever had outside of Pumping Iron was the Woody Allen film, Wild Man Blues (Barbara Koppple, dir.). It was so beautifully shot, single-camera almost entirely. You had a natural story, a great character that people were curious about and sometimes inflamed against. My first cut was 12 hours. I've never done that before.

TH: That's a difference that we have in style. I can't imagine ever making 12 hours.

LS: It was a question of realizing what it was. Once I got it together I could evaluate. It was a boiling-down process like I had never been through before. But it's true; I think you're more conceptually organized earlier in the process than I am.

TH: I don't think it's necessarily a better approach. I ask, What am I going to try and make out of this 45 minutes of dailies?

BE: I have to know how a piece is going to fit into the overall story. But it may get reconceived as something else later on.

TH: There are always jewels, right? The first time you screen them, you know they'll be in the movie. Then it's a question of setting them in the overall design. A lot of times building up the setting is more complicated than placing the jewel.


All of you started out editing on film. What's it like working digitally?

TH: The biggest problem is storage space. Ideally, I want everything online. That's the only thing I miss about film—random access, non-linear and you had everything on the wall.

BE: One of the reasons long-form documentaries were probably the last to get into using the Avid is because we just didn't have the storage capacity to fit all this material. Most of these films couldn't afford it.

TH: I could only hold 25 hours at a time for My Generation [Barbara Kopple's film about the second Woodstock festival, 25 years after the original] out of about 500 hours of raw material. So I had to work piecemeal. Okay, now I'm going to do a thing about security for the concert and then load all of that from 150 different reels and sections. And then work it, get to a place, save the cut and move on. But it's getting a lot better. On The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow [a PBS series by Richard Wormser, Bill Jersey and Sam Pollard exploring segregation from the end of the Civil War to the dawn of the civil rights movement], we had everything at high resolution.

BE: I've never experienced that.

TH: Well, that was interview, B-roll, still photos—a lot less material. I bought an Avid in 1995 and paid $3,200 each for nine-gigabyte hard drives. Now with Final Cut I can pay $250 and buy 120 gigabytes. So if I take three 120-gigabyte hard drives and use low resolution, that's 200 hours of material, which will cover just about any job. Sometimes you need to find a preposition or a proper name because you're trying to make somebody say something more articulately, and it's nice if it's already in there. Much better than having to search through the transcripts and get the tape, run it down to that time code and digitize...I love these machines. People sometimes wax nostalgic about holding the shot in their hand. I have none of that.

BE: I would never want to go back.

LS: The Avid is getting better. I started off doing linear video editing and absolutely detested it, and then, to save myself, I imported the whole rough cut into an Avid and cut it there. But you couldn't edit on the timeline then. Lightworks let you do that and they forced Avid into adding it. But even then, with all its clunkiness, it was so wonderful, so superior. But you have to keep learning the new stuff.

JO: I hated going to Avid. I finally learned on the job, in one day, because I had to. But I had the opportunity a few years ago to cut something on film, and it was such torture. Doing what you do, you destroy the film, you cut into it, you make trims, and you can't find them. That's when I became a convert.

BE: Things were more rigorous when you did it on film. You could cut something and revise it, but you couldn't keep going or you'd be putting missing frames together—it would be just chop suey and you'd have to start ordering reprints. So it forced you to look at everything and figure out what the story was and how it could be best told and then and only then, to cut.

TH: In film, I don't ever remember going backwards. You got to a point in a cut and then you decided to change it, but you never went back to your first cut because that would involve an assistant writing down code numbers or making a slop copy of it. Now, having that discipline from film, we can save sequence after sequence. If something goes wrong you can re-examine the work, but you're not a victim of the digital-only style of editing where they just keep making version after version with no forward motion.

BE: I remember when they first showed me the Avid and they said, "Look, you can save this version and you can make other versions." I said "Why do you need that?" You cut it right the first time and maybe the second or third time, but that's it. Now I have a lot of versions, because even for me, it's easier to start cutting with the Avid without having to think the whole thing through.


Are you seeing younger people, the next generation, who have never edited on film?

TH: I teach at NYU, and half the class comes in knowing Final Cut Pro or iMovie.

LS: They romanticize film editing. They think it'd be wonderful to have had that experience.

JO: Even if people don't develop that discipline and are working in a different way, ultimately they will face the same issues of storytelling. As long as interesting long-form documentaries are being made, these same problems will emerge, and one way or another, they'll have to confront them.

TH: I agree. I came in at a time when everybody had just started using flatbeds. I learned using eight-plates, so I had absolutely no technique on the upright Moviola. You learn with the tool you have. There's the same issue about cinematography now.

LS: I think because of digital cameras, there is a lot less discipline in the shooting. Therefore we have to apply ourselves even more intensively in the editing.

TH: The best one-liner about this was from Peter Davis. He said, "The most important thing a documentary director does is to say, ‘Stop shooting.'"

LS: It's apparent to me on a lot of projects that they haven't really thought out what they're going to get out of a scene. With film, they really had to pick their situations much more precisely because they were shooting ten-minute rolls and they'd have to reload.

TH: Some directors are disciplined enough to conceptualize the material as it unfolds, but many others play it safe, shoot everything and let us figure it out. In the end, you always make it out of what's in the room.

JO: One advantage of shooting like crazy is that there are intentions or things in the material that the director didn't know about.

BE: There's a huge advantage in that. In the past, you just couldn't afford to keep shooting. Now you can keep following the story because sending a person out with a DV camera isn't that expensive.


What's the one project you really, really loved?

BE: Sometimes it doesn't have to do with the project itself, but the experience. It's the emotional attachment you have to the material and the people, more than the finished product.

TH: The first big one I ever did, where I jumped levels—I had been doing industrials and educational films and sales promotion for about five or six years. I got a chance to do this film about Isaac Stern going to China [From Mao to Mozart] and it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

LS: But the Motion Picture Academy-they still do not recognize documentaries properly.

JO: There should be documentary editing and documentary cinematography Oscars.

TH: Awards do help you professionally. After that, I went to documentary heaven, and suddenly I wasn't doing films about American Express office procedures anymore. I've happily spent the rest of my professional life doing very interesting projects of that quality—some more, some less—and it's great.

JO: I was an assistant on both features and documentaries for a long time, and there was a point where I was trying to figure out which way to go. I worked as an associate editor on a film called Streetwise (Martin Bell, dir.). Nancy Baker was the editor. Watching her put the film together was such an incredible experience. To see someone take what looked like 100 hours of fragments and make a narrative, that was a very deep thing. It totally turned me around.

LS: We do have a much bigger piece of the creative pie. What's exciting is how different every film is, with new things to learn and challenges to overcome. Everybody has to work within certain parameters, such as the money and time available, the quality of the materials, and the extent and limitation of your own talent. Working within the parameters, that's what art is.


Andrea Van Hook is an editor and writer for Editors Guild Magazine. She has worked in the television and film industry for over 15 years, at independent production companies , studios and cable networks.